Journal of Archaeology in the Low Countries 2-2 (November 2010)Lucas Meurkens: The late medieval/Early Modern reuse of prehistoric barrows as execution sites in the southern part of the Netherlands

3 Gallows hills in the Netherlands: types and locations

There is a paucity of archaeological or historical research focusing specifically on execution sites, gallows hills or gallows fields in the Netherlands. Until recently, the most important publication on this topic was that by H.G. Jelgersma, who discussed the gallows hills and gallows fields in the western and central parts of the Netherlands largely on the basis of historical sources (Jelgersma 1978). A few years ago, however, an article was published on late medieval gallows in the northern province of Friesland (Mol 2006) and quite recently an extensive monograph has appeared on execution sites in the province of Drenthe (Van der Sanden & Luning 2010). As already noted, there were no comparable surveys for the southern Dutch provinces.

What information on the nature of gallows hills and their location can be inferred from these surveys? Though it should be borne in mind that each individual example has its own specific characteristics, gallows hills nevertheless also show some shared features as far as their nature and locations are concerned. Generally speaking, three groups of gallows hills can be distinguished. First, there are the reused burial mounds that are the focus of the present paper. Second, there are mounds which were built specifically for this purpose, and the third group consists of natural elevations that were used as gallows hills. As far as the locations of the sites are concerned, many lay along major arterial roads and at the boundaries of different territories or jurisdictions.

The best known examples of burial mounds that were reused as gallows hills are those in the province of Drenthe (Luning & Van der Sanden 2010). These prehistoric burial mounds near Anloo, Balloo, Anholt, Sleen and Westerbork bear the toponym Galgenberg – gallows hill. The Galgenbergen of Balloo and Westerbork, and possibly also that of Anholt, actually contained remains of a gallows structure and/or Medieval/Early Modern burials (Luning & Van der Sanden 2010, 101; Van Giffen 1936, 28; Van der Waals 1964, respectively). Many barrows lie along medieval/Early Modern roads or at intersections of such roads and at the boundaries of marken: villages including the collectively exploited wastelands surrounding them. For instance, the medieval location of the Galgenberg of Anloo, the earliest reference to which dates from 1332, was at the boundary of three marken (those of Anloo, Schipborg and Zuidlaren) and along a thoroughfare. A survey of cart tracks in the area surrounding the barrow showed several tracks converging at the gallows hill, and from there on running in a northwesterly (towards Schipborg) and northeasterly (towards Zuidlaren) direction (Jager 1993, 56-60). The recent inventory of recent burials in barrows in Drenthe showed that many barrows not identified by the toponym Galgenberg may well have also been used as execution sites and/or gallows hills. Tumulus 1 at Hijken, for instance, contained a small pit measuring 80 by 40 cm which had been dug into the centre of the barrow. In the pit were skeletal remains of a 20-25 year old man. The pit was far too small for a normal burial, so it is likely that it was used for burying a partly decayed body, possibly after it had been displayed for some time. The bones have been 14C-dated to the 14th century (Luning & Van der Sanden 2010, 109; Ter Schegget 2010, 118-120).

New mounds created specifically for use as gallows hills are known from for example Amerongen and Amersfoort (both province of Utrecht). The Galgenberg of Amerongen lies along the thoroughfare connecting Rhenen and Amerongen and must also have been clearly visible from the Rhine (Stol 1993, 53). Prior to the archaeological investigation carried out here in 1981, it was assumed that this was the site of a reused prehistoric barrow, as also known from Drenthe. No evidence of a barrow was found during the 1981 excavation. The excavation did yield the foundations of a post-medieval gallows. They comprised three brick bases, each bearing a stone pillar, arranged in a triangle. The top ends of the pillars would have been connected by beams, from which the convicts’ corpses were hung. A similar gallows structure was discovered in 1925 during the archaeological investigation of the Galgenberg near Amersfoort (Martin 1927). As can be seen in a drawing dating from 1749 (fig. 3), this Galgenberg formed part of a larger site for displaying corpses. In the immediate vicinity were another two low mounds, one of which bore a wheel. Located at a conspicuous point on top of a hill called Amersfoortse Berg and considering the absence of vegetation in those days, the site would have been clearly visible from Amersfoort. Furthermore, it lay close to the boundary between the jurisdictions of Amersfoort and Leusden and along the thoroughfare between Amersfoort and Utrecht. The earliest mention of the Amersfoort Galgenberg in historical sources dates from 1550, when the gallows had to be repaired. So by then the gallows must have been standing there for some time already.


Figure 3 View of the Galgenberg with a stone gallows near Amersfoort in 1749. To the right of the gallows hill is a low mound bearing a wheel. Drawing by J. de Beyer (after Martin 1927).

In addition to these artificially erected mounds , we also know of several examples of natural elevations that were used as gallows hills. One of those is Kitsenberg in Roermond (province of Limburg), where executions were carried out from at least the early 15th century. The name Kitsenberg refers to kitsen – corpses in an advanced state of decomposition. This context is similar to other examples mentioned above, i.e. at the boundary of the territory of Roermond and also at the boundary between the Duchies of Gelre and Jülich. Moreover, Kitsenberg lay at the spot where the road from Roermond forked, with the two roads leading off going to Cologne and Heinsberg (Van der Borgh 1997).

While not all execution or gallows sites are reused barrows, an inventory of sites in the southern part of the Netherlands has shown that this is often the case. In the next section the aforementioned barrow cemetery at Berghem will be discussed along with three other sites. This will be followed by a survey of sites in the southern Dutch provinces where a relation between barrows and execution or display sites can be shown to have existed.